Suite of the East
Duke Ellington made Far East Suite in 1966. Omer Avital’s Suite of the East was recorded in 2006 but not released until now. The differences between the two albums reveal how the jazz art form evolved over 40 years.
Far East Suite is sophisticated orchestral American jazz with exotic colorations and subtle inflections drawn from Ellington’s exposure to Eastern cultures on a State Department tour. Avital’s album is a deep organic fusion of Middle Eastern and North African music with current cutting-edge jazz. It is not coincidental that Avital’s band contains both Israelis (the bassist-leader, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, pianist Omer Klein) and Americans (tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, drummer Daniel Freedman). Jazz has globalized.
The title track first sounds like an ancient, wheeling folkdance. When Frahm and Cohen blast their way into it, it suddenly sounds like jazz, never mind the provocatively unfamiliar context. Avital began all seven compositions during a three-year stay in Israel and finished them in New York. Pieces like “The Mountain Top” and “Free Forever” begin with incantatory melodies and throbbing rhythmic patterns that are foreign until you feel their universal human celebration, and notice how natural they sound with jazz phrasing. Frahm and Cohen are players who come to every project loaded with ideas. Here they are clearly inspired and energized. Frahm tears up “Free Forever” from the inside. On “The Mountain Top,” Cohen proves he is an original thinker. He thinks in flaming filigrees.
The common themes that unify this music are mostly infectious with vitality and joy, but there are pensive moments. Avital’s solo, “Bass Meditation (on the possibility for peace in the Middle East),” is a moving six-minute narrative, historical and personal. “Sinai Memories” is a lilting mysterious melody, beautifully unfolded by Klein.